As a recent North Carolina transplant and the newest member of the Policy Watch team, I am getting to know my new home and beat by traveling to courtrooms across the state to observe routine, everyday hearings and share what I see with readers. Each dispatch will be from a different county. Where should I go next? Email me at [email protected]
The stories are not necessarily about policy problems or systemic issues with the justice system. Rather, what is written will be deemed newsworthy because it is an occurrence — routine or extraordinary — that may surprise readers whose lives have not intersected with the justice system. Some stories, like this one, even surprise me — and I’ve covered courthouses in four states over the past six years.
Policy Watch is only using the last name of the man whose experience is recounted in this story, as we have done in prior dispatches where the defendants were appearing in open court for low-level criminal charges and who have not been proven guilty.
Here’s a link to my previous dispatches.
All that separated Reece from freedom was just $300. But he couldn’t afford to post the bond, so on the morning of Jan. 25 he appeared via video, streamed from the Buncombe County Detention Center to the courtroom of Chief District Court Judge James Calvin Hill.
Reece asked the judge to make his bond unsecured, which would have allowed him to walk out of jail without having to put up any money. Hill didn’t outright reject the request but said he wouldn’t decide immediately. Hill told Reece his lawyer would visit him “probably today,” after which Hill might lower his bond.
There was silence for several seconds, long enough to make it feel like the call had been dropped. Then, an eruption.
“Goddamn!” Reece screamed. Then he called Hill, who is Black, “a [racial slur].”
Hill didn’t flinch. Reece, who is white, apologized. Hill told him not to worry about it. Then he raised Reece’s bond to $10,000. Reece’s outburst would cost him, literally, thousands of dollars.
Hill wanted Reece in his courtroom now, in person.
“I don’t care if he has to be put in restraints, tell the sheriff to bring him to court,” Hill ordered the courtroom staff.
“I’m sorry I cussed at you, sir,” Reece said on the call. “I don’t want to come to court.”
A half hour passed before jailers transported Reece the third of a mile from the Buncombe County Detention Center to Hill’s courtroom.
Hill’s courtroom is in Asheville, a city that created a Community Reparations Commission last year. The first recommendation of the City Council’s resolution supporting reparations proposed that Asheville apologize and make amends for its “participation in and sanctioning of the Enslavement of Black people.”
In 1860, there were 1,907 enslaved people in Buncombe County. Just 111 Black people living in the county were free.
Typically, enslaved people were sold on people’s property, but there were at least two occasions between 1850 and 1863 in which they were sold at an earlier iteration of the Buncombe County courthouse. (The county has had eight courthouses since 1791. One burned down in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.)
A notice in the Asheville News from August 1859 posted by J.W. Woodfin states that he would be selling “three very likely negroes,” a woman and two children, at the door of the courthouse.
One hundred and fifty years later, Hill took the bench in the county’s courthouse as chief district court judge, where Reece’s case was one of thousands he would preside over.
Reece appeared in the doorway as the judge was preparing for a bench trial involving other defendants.
“I’m going to give me the opportunity to say that to my face,” Hill said. “You called me a [racial slur] just a few minutes ago.”
Reece told Hill he’s sorry, that he didn’t mean it. He just panicked. He got scared.
“Do you do that to white people, too? When you panic, do you call them [a racial slur]?” Hill asked.
“Please don’t hold me in contempt, sir, and make my life any harder,” Reece begged.
Hill was unmoved. He noted for the record that Reece’s bond is $10,000, and that Reece would be held in contempt for 15 days.
The onlookers in the courtroom remained silent, waiting for the court’s morning business to proceed. It was so quiet that they could hear the chains rattling as Reece was led out of court, back to jail.